Today is the first day in 13 that I’ve been able to sit down in the morning in my office and write. If allergies don’t seal my eyes shut in the next 2 hours, I might manage to get a little writing done today. Then at noon, it’s time for more errands and getting ready to camp with the Boy Scouts in the rain. This is one of the big downsides to being self-employed, trying to manage your own time, all day every day. I’ve been doing it for 21 years. Sometimes I’m good at it, other times all the activities and obligations get thrown into a big bucket of slop that must be taken care of immediately. Of course, it takes energy to compartmentalize and prioritize, and sometimes it’s hard to find. (I think the first time I ever heard the word “compartmentalize”, it was being used by Bill Clinton to describe how he kept working when he was being impeached for a pugwash by a fat slag from Beverly Hills. While a regular person might feel mortified by what was going on, for Bubba apparently, it was just background noise.) For all you out there with 9-to-5 jobs, be aware that while a regular structure may at times feel constricting, it makes a lot of other things easier.
But it’s been a good fortnight, all in all. My brother and his family visited us from New Jersey, their first visit here in at least 12 years, and we got to show off the Windy City that we love so much. Hancock Building, Michigan Avenue, Frank Lloyd Wright in Oak Park, Cubs game, the museums, Millennium Park. We ran them ragged, and are paying for it now. For some reason, this was a very gastro-centric trip for my brother. He had to have a Chicago dog at just about every turn, he wanted to order in a deep-dish pizza (which is a rarity for us), and he absolutely had to hunt down an Italian Beef sandwich. He satisfied that last cholesterol-y craving at 11 in the morning on the way to the Field Museum by stopping off at Al’s #1 over in River North. I can thoroughly sympathize, because a good Italian beef is worth shaving years off your life for. (He already paid the price for it with the constant comments from us like “You’re eating again?”)
Besides showing off the city to a couple of kids from the NY suburbs, it was a good week for cousins to get together, sleep in the same room, get in fights and then forget about them–all the basics of extended family dynamics. My son and my nephew are an exceptionally well-matched pair. It’s a shame they can’t see each other more than once or twice a year. Sometimes this country is too damn big. Maybe Pennsylvania and Ohio can secede, so Chicago and NY can be a little closer.
Before the family arrived, I took a quick trip up to Calvin College in Grand Rapids, to attend a few sessions of their “Festival of Faith and Writing.” I don’t go to many writing festivals, mostly out of a stubborn conviction that I should stay chained to my desk, whether the time is productive or not, rather than spend time talking and thinking about writing. (The way I love the self-denying discipline of writing as opposed to the creative spark, I shoulda been a nun in a grade school.) I was very glad to get out there, though, if only for the chance to meet and hear from people who care passionately about writing, who love the printed word, who have something to say and want to figure out how to say it. This Bi-annual event is very worthwhile, if you ever get the chance to attend.
The main attraction for me was a speech by Michael Chabon, whose estimation in my mind skyrocketed when I read “Kavalier and Clay” and will stay high for quite some time, regardless of what he puts out. (Does that sound like faint praise? It’s not meant to. I enjoyed “Yiddish Policemen’s Union” quite a lot, too. “Summerland” and “Final Solution”? Middling.) His speech was basically the reading of a long essay, “Imaginary Homelands”, included in his new collection of essays, “Maps & Legends”. He was every bit as off-handedly charming as I thought he’d be. I even stood a long time in line for an inscription in my books, something I very rarely do. (I pressed on him a postcard for BARDBALL.COM, and he told me, “I LOVE baseball poetry.” He probably meant “good baseball poetry,” but in any case, maybe he’ll check it out sometime.)
The next morning, he had a Q&A session that was attended by a couple hundred people. His admissions about writing his sophomore novel were very enlightening, and should give hope to all writers, established or not. After the good reception of “The Mysteries of Pittsburgh,” he struggled to come up with something he was happy with. After 5.5 years and perhaps 20 drafts of the book, he still wasn’t happy, and was deathly afraid that the “sophomore jinx” was going to sink his career as it had so many others. He admitted that one of the worst things a writer goes through is the annual meeting with distant relatives at times like Thanksgiving and Passover, and being asked, “So, what are you working on?” and having to say the same thing you’d said the previous year, and the year before, and the year before that. Man, can I relate to that.
At the same time, his first marriage was collapsing. He finally abandoned the book and wrote “Wonder Boys” about a professor having a terrible time writing his second book. When describing his next book to relatives and friends, Chabon said he got sick, sympathetic smiles when he described two young cousins in NY writing comic books as WWII loomed in Europe. Chabon wondered if he was committing career suicide by writing about genre literature, the kind of writing he loved as a kid but that was pooh-poohed in every writing class and seminar in which he dared to bring it up. His idiosyncratic choices were validated when “Kavalier & Clay” won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. He says he now has the conviction to follow every “bad idea for a book” he has. These types of confessions, from a writer with immensely more talent than me, are like a tonic with a shot of Jameson’s. All writers (at least the good ones) face the roadblocks of doubt and effort and preconceived notions of what is expected of him/her. The only weapons we have against it are conviction and honesty with ourselves. It helps to have talent, too, and a stubborn streak that keeps telling you that your ridiculous idea just might be the best book you’ve ever done.